Five and a half years after Irrational Games’ last adventure, they have returned to the franchise that brought them so much acclaim back in 2007. This is no sequel, it’s barely even a prequel, though it does share Bioshock’s tone, themes and style.
The year is 1912 and New Yorker and former army man Booker DeWitt has amassed a debt that he can’t repay. However, if he can travel to the city above the clouds known as Columbia and bring back a young woman named Elizabeth, who has some strange abilities, the debt will be cleared. Though as you can probably guess, it isn’t going to be that easy, not by a long shot.
To say the story is muddled would be selling it short, it’s all over the freaking place! There seems to be a multitude of ideas swimming about here vying for defiance. Entire plots rise, take over, then are disregarded, barely to be mentioned again. The most interesting story is the main one; Booker and Elizabeth trying to escape the bizarre city while discovering twists along the way, but for almost half of the game you’re forced along on fetch quests and asked to backtrack constantly across the same areas numerous times.
Columbia is an impressive place, though it can be difficult to explore. In many respects, Bioshock: Infinite behaves like an open world game though is still very much linear. Pushing up on the D-Pad will create an arrow on the ground which will outright tell you where to go (similar to Dead Space), expect to use this button often as the level design isn’t going to help you (though it is removed from the touted “1999 mode”). You will also quickly learn to recognise some set-pieces, from a door suddenly blocking your path until you track down the necessary power needed to unlock it, to the npc who “tests your will” by sending countless bad guys after you.
Every so often, Elizabeth may say “we can go straight to the objective or we can explore this way” as there would be no way we would know about it otherwise. The fact we have to be told the potential for exploration helps emphasis how removed it feels from the design. There’s nothing wrong with linear games, but add this to the fact that backtracking to previous areas is extremely limited unless it’s to do with the story (despite some optional side-missions), a few “choices” to be made and a strange moment when you’re told that stealing from people may result in dire consequences only for the mechanic to be immediately dropped, the game feels confused.
Gameplay and story simply don’t mesh very well. One minute you breathe in the right-wing supremest propaganda as it feels as if the story is trying to tell a tale of man’s arrogance with hefty tones, but then combat starts in which you can gratuitously rip heads off and shoot lightning from your fingertips while fighting mechanical George Washingtons. It’s not too big an issue, I only bring it up because it feels as if Irrational Games were actually trying to tell a serious story, when in the end it’s actually all very camp and silly if you think about it.
A major opportunity is lost when it comes to making the player care about Elizabeth. During cut-scenes and dialogue she’s great; fun, bubbly, believable and easy to relate to (although she’s a little too chirpy when picking locks, even at the darkest moments), thanks to great motion capture and voice acting. The major issue is when the gameplay starts, it’s like she’s removed from the events. At one point, a menu pops up to tell you that “You don’t need to worry about Elizabeth, she can take care of herself”. While I can appreciate the fear of the game simply being one long escort mission, you simply don’t feel much of a connection to her during gameplay.
She isn’t completely useless to be fair though, in fact she behaves more like a partner than a damsel for the most part. She doesn’t pick up a gun and join in, though she will scour the environment and give you ammo, health or salts (which power your Vigors, the “magic” of the game), add this to the fact that she tends to run ahead of Booker while exploring, she’s more like the dog from Fable 2. The real shame is that we never really get a chance to interact with her as a player, the ability to talk with her further between gun fights would have been a nice touch, similar to Prince of Persia (2008) where with the push of a button you can turn and talk to the Princess, where back-stories can be explained and characters further developed.
The ending is bound to be the topic of conversation for a good while, with strong opinions on both sides of the fence. Due to the subject matter, I’m sure there will be people who will eat it up and ask for seconds, but personally, I felt cheated. There is a conversation with one of the main bad guys near the end in which he flat-out points out a plot-hole in his own logic that has lasted the whole game. It simply felt like a barrage of twists from left field for the sake of it. When I let it settle in my mind I feel as if I’m just about ready to accept it on some level, but then another plot hole comes to mind that throws a pebble right in the middle causing ripples to spread.
All and all, the story is uneven, effective in patches but far too much fluff that seems to only exist to lengthen the running time, it works best when it simply deals with the main story-line. It also suffers from a surprising lack of polish, there are a few too many plot holes, inconsistencies and evidence of baffling writing: at one point, Booker tells Elizabeth what his mission is and she barely reacts, a couple of minutes later he tells her again, suddenly she bursts into tears as if she never heard the story before. For a game so long in development, it’s crazy that nobody noticed this.
At times, the combat can be exhilarating, thanks mainly to the power lines, which I’m sure you’ve seen if you’ve watched the trailers. The ability to jump on these lines with your hook and take out enemies up above that were causing you trouble, only to then jump back on, swing to the other side of the map and surprise an unsuspecting enemy is quite something. THIS is Bioshock Infinite at its best.
However, more often than not, it’s a simple trudge along corridors that we’ve come to expect from countless FPS games these days. It can be fun to combine powers but your energy runs out so quickly and doesn’t regenerate that the game almost encourages you to rely more on your guns.
As the game goes on, combat can become an annoying chore. This was a similar problem with Bioshock; the enemies become much stronger as time goes by despite not changing in appearance, taking far more damage tha you’d think would be necessary. My advice? Save your money for upgrades to your weapons. Vigors are fine but can run out quickly, especially in heated battles and you can’t hold vigor bottles (or health) in reserve. There is no real use in buying ammo or health from vending machines because Elisabeth will likely throw you what you need in the middle of a battle, the rest you can pick up from bodies and chests; expect to hammer the X button while running over a field of bodies during a battle. Booker has the same consumption problem as Jack from Bioshock, as it’s impossible for him to pick up an item without immediately using it, whether it’s health, food, energy or even cigarettes.
Even if you do fall, there is no death in this game, again, like Bioshock, though yet again it barely factors into the narrative beyond Booker being creeped out the first time it happens then never mentioning it again. Elizabeth also seems to have an infinite supply of needles on her person, as whenever you “die” in her company, she’ll inject you with something that will bring you back to your feet.
This is a bizarre decision and an aspect of games that I’m surprised still exists. The only penalty for death is to have approximately $25 removed from your purse and having the enemies restore some of their health, though I think it’s time for developers to realise that losing a little pocket-money isn’t that big a deal when we can just power through with newly replenished powers and fully stocked ammo. As such this game commits one of the biggest sins of a single player experience: it makes you not care when you die. Because of this, you will continue to die. Often.
As with Rapture, the world of Columbia is stunning. While the atmosphere may not be as thick and dreary, it does have much more life. Many areas in the first act allow you to simply roam around without being attacked, letting you breath it all in. You can eavesdrop on conversations, listen to some great music (an acapella version of “God only knows” is a highlight) and even take part in carnival games. A moment when Elizabeth offers food to a young child may be cheesy and heavy-handed but it still sent chills all over my body. The city is thriving this time around, your enemies aren’t mindless monsters (cough) but are instead are committed to an ideal and loyal to their prophet, though it’s hard to shake the feeling that had Booker not arrived so soon, Columbia may not be too dissimilar to Rapture.
Bioshock Infinite is still a positive experience and one that’s worth taking, but it is also a confused one. Topics of Quantum Mechanics and Civil War make fine backdrops but are all too often pushed to the front at the expense of the main story. I can’t fault the ambition, it’s just the execution that is lacking in key areas. Combat and story share something in that they can both be nerve rattlingly exciting at times but uninvolving or misjudged at others. If the first thing I say out loud at the end of a game is “Oh for God’s sake don’t end like that!”, then I can conclude that it hasn’t quite passed the Kevin test. Close though.